Landscape Photography: Doing Justice to the Real Thing

Aug 15, 2009

It’s an oft-heard refrain after taking a photograph of a stunning vista: “It just doesn’t do justice to the real thing.” Many photographers have grown accustomed to producing less-than-inspiring shots, even when the subject at hand is nothing short of breathtaking. Of course, the flip side of the coin is that we’ve all seen amazing photographs that seem to transport us to the place the photographer pointed his or her lens.

The art of landscape photography, in a way, is all about bridging the gap between the real thing and the reproduction — doing justice to the real thing – making something that lives in 3 dimensions come to life in only 2 dimensions. For landscape photographers, this is an even more important element of the work.

Achieving a Sense of Depth in Landscape Photography

The fascinating thing about vistas is their incredible depth. And this sense of depth is usually what’s “lost” in improperly devised landscape photographs. Depth can only be perceived by juxtaposing the foreground and background. Use a wide-angle lens and an aperture of f/16 or smaller, or better yet, use hyper-focal focus so the foreground and background are both sharp and in focus and the viewer has a sense of the scale of whatever you’re shooting – mountain peaks, river valleys, a waterfall, etc. It’s advisable to use a tripod to steady and level your camera, as smaller apertures require slower shutter speeds.

Set the Stage

When dealing with dramatic panoramas, many photographers get overwhelmed and don’t focus enough on the basic rules of good landscape photography – such as what the subject and focal point of the composition are. The rule of thirds can help you avoid distraction and get all the pieces in the right place. Mentally divide your viewfinder into thirds with two vertical lines, making for a total of 9 boxes. To achieve the sense of scale we mentioned in the previous paragraph, consider placing prominent objects in the foreground (trees, boulders, rocks, etc.) to either the left or right third of the frame. A picture with a powerful background image in the center, such as a brilliant cloud or mountain peak, and an interesting foreground object will make for a more pleasing experience as the viewer’s eye naturally wanders around the picture. But continue to stay open to using large swaths of negative space to help create a sense of space and depth. Doing with will often lead you to other ratios such as fifths and eights and can create an entirely different sense of space and place.

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